The Death Conversation with a Three-Year-Old

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I found out that I couldn’t attend my grandmother’s funeral in my ob-gyn’s office. After my doctor observed that I was several centimeters dilated, I asked, “So I shouldn’t go to New Jersey on Monday then?” Looking up from between my legs, she said, “No, You probably shouldn’t travel out of state.” Between the fact that I missed the funeral and the baby was born that afternoon meant that I never told my older son about my grandmother’s death. He had only met her once, briefly, so it would have met little to him anyway. But it made me realize how urgent it was to talk about the subject with him.

In particular, my other grandmother is getting up in years. Sprout has met “Grammy” several times and remembers her. While her passing may be years away, there’s no way to know. Needless to say, I didn’t want finding out about her death to be Sprout’s introduction to the topic.

But I had no idea where to start.

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On Little Bird’s First Birthday

Photo: Baby lying next to a swaddled teddy bear; Text: "On Little Bird's First Birthday / We'll Eat You Up, We Love You So"

“Ah ah, come back here!” I yelp as my baby once again arches his back, flips over and stands up on his changing table. Somewhere between wrestling and tickling him, I finally manage to get a fresh diaper on. But that’s Little Bird at one year old – high energy and big emotions.

When he was first born, he was a touch over five pounds. He was just bigger than his teddy bear, swaddled in thin blankets. Still convinced that he belonged in the womb, he dozed in the pack-and-play even when his brother was sing-yelling next to him. At first, it seemed like he was going to be adorably sleepy and quiet.

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Pajamas of Days Gone By

Photo: Baby sleeping in footie pajamas covered in green dinosaurs. Text: "Pajamas of Days Gone By / We'll Eat You Up, We Love You So"

A pair of pajamas can make me choke up these days. Not just any pajamas, of course. Just the panda onesie. Or the fleece pajamas with the rocket ships. Or the ones that say “Out of this world!” Looking at them, I breathe deep and stare off into the distance, as if my younger son’s infancy was years ago instead of weeks.

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Storytime with Hop and Bun, the Imaginary Bunnies

Photo: Stuffed white rabbit sitting on a bookshelf. Text:

This is actually Snowball, our “pet bunny.” But good luck getting a photo of an imaginary friend.

“Tell me a Hop and Bun story,” Sprout says, his pants around his ankles as he’s sitting on the toilet. Perched on the side of the bathtub, I look off into the distance, as if I can pluck an idea from the mirror above the sink. “Hmmmm, well,” I stall, wracking my brain. “Once upon a time, there were two bunnies, named Hop and Bun. They were best friends. One day…”

Eventually, I always come up with something. The plots have ranged from the hapless bunnies getting lost on the subway to saving up money and buying a scooter.

While I love telling Sprout stories – despite the odd circumstances – that’s not my favorite part of this routine. No – it’s the fact that Hop and Bun are utterly from Sprout’s imagination. I played no part in their creation. They aren’t drawn from a book or TV show. One day, Sprout just declared that he was a bunny named Hop and Bun was his friend.

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The “But Why?” Phase

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I have to be the only parent in history looking forward to my kid’s “Why?” stage. I imagined a whole universe of learning lying ahead of us. I’d answer questions until I ran out of answers and then we’d look it up together, snuggled up in the light of the computer screen. When we didn’t have time, we’d write them down to investigate later. When I’d ask him what he thought, he’d come up with a brilliant but age-appropriate answer, showing equal parts creativity and insight.

Like any parenting fantasy, it didn’t work out that way.

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Six Months with Little Bird in Our Lives

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Despite his nickname, Little Bird has always strived to be big. When he was inside me, he wouldn’t just kick, he’d stretch, his feet jamming into my organs. He arrived 3 1/2 weeks early, scrambling out into the world unexpectedly. Now he’s been with us for more than six months, a half-year full of so many changes.

When Little Bird arrived, he was a peanut, just over five pounds. As Sprout said, “He’s so teeny tiny!” Because he hadn’t gained most of the fat babies do in their last weeks in utero, his wrinkly face looked especially old-mannish.

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